BY THOMAS L. WILLIAMS
SPECIAL TO CONTRACTOR
NEW ORLEANS — At the outset, let me acknowledge that I've been involved in helping to develop the educational curriculum of the Mechanical Contractors Association of America over the past 20 years.
Any MCAA member who has participated actively in working on MCAA's educational programs can tell you that it's a time-consuming process because of the desire to make each program more effective each year. With the overwhelming success of MCAA's 2003 Project Performance Conference in Philadelphia — where consideration of a central case study was first employed as a conference strategy — we recognized our challenge and started work immediately after the conference to ensure success in 2004.
The preparation for this uniquely interactive conference was extensive and ongoing. Everyone involved — members of the MCAA Education Committee, MCAA President Mike Gossman, Vice President and Assistant Treasurer Dave Kruse, National Director of Project-Management and Advanced Supervisory Education John Koontz, University of Nebraska Professor of Construction Management Tim Wentz and I — selected the case study, decided which topics were important to the resolution of this particular project's problems and chose the best possible faculty to address these topics.
Without strong documentation, it is often impossible to quantify risks.
Here are the basics of the conference, which took place June 17-19 in New Orleans and attracted 206 attendees.
The selected conference project for 2004 involved the construction of a new, $42 million state-of-the-art public high school that encountered a number of significant problems. The job was under the direction of a construction manager who was asked to manage dozens of separate prime contractors.
The problems that arose were very similar to those seen on many projects, including: a particularly harsh, oppressive contract; a vague initial milestone schedule coupled with no CPM schedule; work performed out of sequence; wildly escalating commodity pricing; a subcontractor who defaults; ownerfurnished equipment that arrives out of sequence; a serious accident involving OFE and the owner-controlled insurance program; all combined with an overwhelming number of change orders.
Every attendee was assigned to a team that had been carefully assembled to incorporate a wide spectrum of experience, knowledge and geographic diversity. The teams, playing the role of the plumbing/piping contractor, were charged with the responsibility of salvaging this actual project over the course of the 21/2-day conference. In the breakouts, the teams addressed specific tasks to identify, quantify or resolve the specific problem under discussion.
As each subject — documentation, contracts, scheduling, change orders and financial calamities — was introduced, the attendees were able to explore alternative strategies aimed at overcoming the project problems or, at the very least, minimizing their adverse impact upon the project. In this, they were guided by the MCAA faculty and facilitators, who are either experienced MCAA contractors or academic experts.
For example, John Koontz made it clear that without a strong documentation program within your firm, it is often impossible to quantify the risks found on this type of project. John taught construction management techniques at Purdue University after spending years in the mechanical contracting industry.
Tim Wentz and I pointed out that part of the solution to project problems often involves recovering lost costs through the change order process. Along with teaching construction management at Nebraska, Tim has more than 20 years' experience in the mechanical industry.
From the outset, the attendee teams were actively involved in making this conference the success that it was. Much more than the typical lecturersdelivering-knowledge format, the learning at this conference was continuous and demanded continuous reevaluation and response from the conference faculty.
This was the element of the conference that had the faculty up late at night, hunched over their computers, redesigning the next day's presentations in response to team suggestions or questions during the breakouts. I also think it was the element that brought this conference its unique vitality.
One of the most refreshing aspects of the conference was the enthusiasm and excitement of attendees and faculty alike. For example, many participants didn't want to stop their conversations and team assignments to go to lunch or happy hour. Three people changed their flights so they could stay for the entire Saturday session. One participant, relaxing in the hotel lobby Thursday night, observed three attendees talking endlessly about what they were learning at the conference.
So it was no surprise to us that the conference evaluations were overwhelmingly positive. For example, Richard Jackson of Anderson, Rowe & Buckley Inc. in San Francisco took great satisfaction in the fact that he was able to discuss the day's topics with his boss after each session to see what would work back in their office.
Rex Horney III of Rawlings Mechanical Corp. in Sun Valley, Calif., noted: "I think having the opportunity to work with others in your team and use their real-life experiences to help solve problems before talking to the experts helps broaden the learning experience. The input from other teams helps reinforce answers. Having this 'real-life project' makes much more sense because it fits in with many projects we all encounter. I have already started using the many tools given to me in my work today!"
Thomas Williams served as president of MCAA in 2003.